Around halfway through the draw for the fourth round of the FA Cup, things looked rosy for Plymouth Argyle. Plenty of Premier League teams remained in the hat, as well as some of the lower ranked sides who could provide an easier path to the fifth round. With around 12 balls left to draw, Leeds United were the only team Argyle could face who play in the same division.
Well, the rest is history. The trip to Elland Road is coming up on Saturday. I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised.
For different reasons, the Championship is the priority for both sides this season. But with the teams set to clash in the league in a matter of weeks, this may act as an ideal dress rehearsal for the pair. Daniel Farke will be facing an Ian Foster side for the first time, whilst Argyle’s gaffer will be looking for all the experience he can get against second tier opposition.
With that in mind, we may not see the rotation we might expect for a fourth-round tie. Whatever team they put out though, Leeds are objectively strong. They’ll start as clear favourites (a Leeds win by three goals is currently considered as likely as an Argyle win of any kind by the bookies), and it’ll be a tough ask for the Greens to pick at any potential weaknesses in Farke’s side. How might that side look?
Style of play
Leeds are an interesting case. As with many of the big sides in this division, they’re comfortable on the ball. Their average possession this season is 57%, with only three Championship sides registering a higher figure. Despite this, counter attacks are one of Leeds’ main mechanisms for creating chances.
Leeds have launched more counter attacks than any other side in the Championship this season. Along with Argyle, they’ve taken the joint-highest number of shots originating from counter attacks. And with eight, they’ve scored the highest number of goals from counter attacks in the division. These are figures you’d expect from sides with lower possession averages. If a team has less of the ball, they’ll have more chances to counter attack when they dispossess their opponents. Leeds buck the trend.
When they start on the ball, Leeds are happy to be patient and await openings. They can be safe in the knowledge that their attack is powerful enough to force through low blocks and stubborn defensive lines if the necessity arises. Rarely do they feel the need to panic and revert to route one; Leeds have actually attempted the lowest number of long passes in the league.
Meanwhile, without the ball, they’re like a coiled spring ready to launch as soon as they turn over possession. Having the pace of Dan James in the front line makes such a strategy highly potent. He’ll make his way into spaces on the right and, if he has much of the field in front of him, he’s an odds-on favourite to beat his marker to the ball. Fear not! He went off injured in midweek and is likely to miss out this weekend.
When available, James has generally been part of a front four this season, with Farke almost exclusively deploying a 4-2-3-1. He’s generally been joined in the attack by the supremely talented Crysencio Summerville, Joel Piroe and Georginio Rutter. Patrick Bamford has also forced his way back into the fold in recent weeks. He’d started one game all season before scoring a goal in the last round of the FA Cup that went viral. He hasn’t missed a game since, and scored the winner against Norwich City on Wednesday.
Further back there is the versatile Ethan Ampadu, who has started every game this season in league and cup. He’s generally in midfield alongside Glen Kamara, but has recently partnered Tottenham Hotspur loanee Joe Rodon at the back following an injury to Pascal Struijk. When Ampadu drops back, Ilia Gruev tends to slot seamlessly into the midfield. The rest of the defence is usually complemented with Junior Firpo on the left, and 17-year-old Archie Gray on the right, though Sam Byram can play on either side if required.
The shape, as all good 4-2-3-1 shapes need to be, is structured. Attacking is generally left to the powerful front four, who have all sorts of mechanisms to put opposition defences to the sword. They certainly don’t mind running at you – Rutter and Summerville rank second and third respectively for completed dribbles in the Championship. They can also pick a ball across, with Summerville and James both in the top five for crosses completed in the division. Don’t rule out moments of brilliance from any of the frontline.
There is one thing we haven’t really touched on: squad rotation. Leeds made six changes from their previous league game when they faced Peterborough in the third round. That hardly seemed to leave them weakened. Some regulars may be rested at the weekend, but if that means chances to impress for Jaidon Anthony and Wilfred Gnonto, Argyle could find themselves in an even trickier predicament.
Ultimately, Leeds will be fearsome opponents no matter who gets the nod to start.
This section could be seriously long. I’ll try to limit myself to just the key strengths, but so many stick out to me when I analyse Leeds’ numbers.
Their attack is undeniably the place to start. Every one of their regular front four would look perfectly at home in the Premier League and, based on current trajectory, that may well become a reality by the start of next season.
There are so many ways we can demonstrate the effectiveness of their attack. Starting simply, Leeds have had more shots than any team in the Championship this season. And that doesn’t just consist of hopeful shots from range – Leeds have taken 70% of their shots from inside the box this season, with only Middlesbrough taking a higher proportion of their shots from inside the penalty area. They’ve had 77 big chances this season, a tally only topped by Leicester City’s 81.
With Leeds taking a high number of shots, the majority from dangerous positions, it’s no surprise that they currently have the highest xG in the Championship.
The front four obviously play a huge role in the numbers. Summerville (12), Piroe and James (ten each) are all in the top ten for goals in the Championship this season, making Leeds the only team to have as many as three players in the top ten of the goalscoring charts. If you focus on goals scored per 90 minutes, Bamford isn’t too far behind.
Those are strong numbers, but they overshadow a key aspect of what makes Leeds’ front four so dangerous: creativity. Not only are Leeds’ forwards competent at finding the net, they also have a keen eye for setting up chances for each other.
Rutter plays a major role. Ok, having bagged five so far this season, he didn’t feature previously when I reeled off the list of goalscorers. But he’s missed ten big chances, more than anyone else in Leeds’ side, and really ought to have more to his name. Creatively though, he’s on another level. He’s created 17 big chances this season, with Summerville the next highest in Leeds’ squad with 13. Leicester’s Abdul Fatawu (19) is the only player to have created more than either player across the campaign.
It’s just another sign of a front four on the same wavelength. They shoot, they score, and they create chances for each other. Considering Leeds played in midweek whilst Argyle had a whole week to train and recuperate, Leeds may well make changes to the front line. But that isn’t likely to change their style or make them a great deal weaker.
I do just want to touch on their defence too. It feels harsh for them to be playing second fiddle here – with the lowest xG against this season they’re clearly doing performing well. That they’re overshadowed is more a comment on just how well their attack functions.
Nonetheless, Leeds’ tackling stats have caught my eye. Specifically, they’ve posted a particularly impressive tackle success figure of 72%. That’s the second-highest figure in the Championship, with only Queens Park Rangers completing a greater proportion of their tackles. And that’s something that probably helps their counter attacks too – Leeds are winning the ball back well, catching their opponents out of position, and distributing the ball to their talented, pacy forwards.
To be honest, there are so many more strengths I could have mentioned. We’d be here all day. I’ll just settle by confirming the fact Leeds find themselves firmly in the promotion race. It’s clearly no coincidence.
It’s not going to surprise you that I’ve found this section by far the most problematic. I’ve spent much of this piece waxing lyrical about Leeds, and now I’m supposed to point out where they’re failing? Blimey. I certainly don’t envy Foster and the gang in having to do the same.
I’ve looked towards expected goals as a means of assistance, and specifically our expected points model. With 56.63, Leeds currently sit top of the expected points table. And yes, that’s a strength in its own right. On xG, they currently find themselves ahead of every club in the Championship, including runaway leaders Leicester. With that in mind though, Leeds are currently underperforming against their xG. Not by a lot, but underperforming nonetheless.
Argyle will have to consider why that may be. Could it be that Leeds, as strong as they are, can be wasteful? If so they could come unstuck against a side like Argyle whose 39% shot accuracy is the best in the league. Maybe Leeds’ position in the xG table is inflated because they find themselves behind in games often, and need to push for a goal? They have after all picked up 17 points from losing positions this season, trailing only Ipswich Town with 21. If that’s the case, Argyle might be quietly confident of getting into the lead, and should have a plan if they manage to do so.
Both possibilities bring a necessity for Argyle to be clinical, which has been one of the Greens’ major strengths. Develop a chance for the ever-improving Ryan Hardie, or get Morgan Whittaker on the ball within his natural shooting range, and you never know.
As Argyle look to develop their own chances, I’d perhaps look towards Leeds’ goalkeepers. Ilian Meslier has obviously been first choice this season, but it’s unlikely we’ll see him this weekend. Kristoffer Klaesson started in the last round, and Karl Darlow has filled in when Meslier has been unavailable, most notably after being sent off against Preston North End on Boxing Day.
None of the ‘keepers have been bad shot stoppers, though it should be said that all three sit behind Michael Cooper and Conor Hazard in their goals prevented stats this season. They just don’t particularly convince me when it comes to crosses. Meslier may have made a high claim before he smacked Milutin Osmajic in the face in the previous clip, but that has generally been an exception to the rule.
The three ‘keepers much prefer to punch the ball away from danger. That of course runs the risk of giving the ball back to the opposition, and in a dangerous area (particularly with players like Whittaker on the prowl). As a collective, Leeds’ goalkeepers have made 25 punches against 11 high claims, with their claim rate of 31% by far the lowest in the league.
Argyle haven’t tended to make too many crosses in the first half of the season, so I wonder if this may be a good time to hand a debut to Matthew Sorinola. His desire to fire the ball in could offer a challenge to whoever starts between the sticks for the hosts.
I will also just touch on Leeds’ player turnover. They’ve used 32 players in the Championship this season, with only Stoke City using more (and by the end of the season, I’ve no doubt that half the players the Potters deploy will have once played for Argyle). With this being a cup weekend, there’s the potential for even more changes to be made. The players coming in won’t be bad in their own right, but it’s not unlikely Leeds will field a starting 11 that hasn’t played together before this season, and that could lead to some disjointed moves.
If Argyle have spent all week working on strong patterns of play, they could look to exploit any disunity in Leeds’ side.
I don’t think it’s self-deprecating in any way to claim this is a bigger game for Argyle than it is for Leeds. Granted, both will be focusing on the league this season, but Argyle have a chance to make the fifth round for the first time since 2007, whilst Leeds are coming into the game on the back of a league fixture just three days ago.
So yes, I expect Leeds will make more changes than Argyle. Alas, I don’t think it’ll be enough to change the likely outcome. It’s worth remembering the players Leeds bring in would almost all start for the Greens every week. I’d fancy Darko Gyabi to start for the hosts had he not been loaned out – of course, he’ll now be unavailable for either side this weekend.
There will be no shortage of desire from Argyle. But I think Leeds’ quality will be just about enough, and we may well see a repeat of the league fixture at Elland Road in November. 2-1 to Leeds.